In Men at Work, George F. Will began his celebration of baseball defense with a tale of Cal and Bill Ripken turning a rally-killing double-play while their father watched from the visitors’ dugout in Toronto — and concluded with an appropriately blue-collar ending:
“After the third out the two Ripkens ran off the field, same pace, arms held in the same position, forearms cocked slightly above parallel to the ground, eyes straight ahead, looking into the dugout. They ran past their father, the third-base coach. It was just another night on the factory floor for the Ripken men…”
Cal Ripken’s induction into the Hall of Fame last month — along with Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padres’ hitting machine — was a cleansing moment in baseball’s ongoing season of shame. Yes, the steroid use is way down (as is the musculature of players I won’t mention). But the memory of decade-long cheating lingers and festers, the wound made worse by denial on the part of some and scurrying-for-the-high-grass on the part of others. Seeing Ripken and Gwynn, two regular guys, enter the Cooperstown aristocracy on the merits, period, was a happy reminder of better days.
Or at least the pious memory of better days. For cheating has been part of baseball from the git-go: corked bats, scuffed balls, spitters. Still, there was something different about the steroid scandal, no matter how hard it may be to define that difference. Traditional baseball skullduggery was both clandestine and out-in-the-open: the corked bat broke and the batter was ejected; the thumb-tack or Vaseline on the brim of the pitcher’s hat was spotted, and he, too, got the heave-ho from the men in blue. Crime, trial, verdict, and punishment were there for all to see. The steroid scandal was about furtive injections in the dark recesses of the clubhouse, and then getting caught by urinalysis. The yuck factor was higher, reflecting a sound moral intuition about the higher gravity of the offense.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a column about Cal Ripken, not about steroids. Cal, as everyone in the State of Maryland calls him, was the son of a lifelong baseball man whom Dr. Will once described thus: “Cal Ripken, Sr., smokes Lucky Strikes and drinks Schlitz beer. The Luckies are not filtered and the Schlitz is not light. He is a former minor league catcher who looks like something whittled from an old fungo bat…” The Luckies finally killed him, a few years ago; but long before, Cal Ripken, Sr., had given both of his baseball-playing sons something even greater than instruction and support: a respect for the game. It’s the same respect the brothers Ripken now try to teach youngsters at their baseball academy in Aberdeen, Maryland, a respect built on hard work, sound fundamentals, and the slow development of that sixth sense called “baseball smarts.”
A lot of which is, alas, in short supply in today’s pastime. The corruptions of baseball in 2007 are not just (or perhaps even primarily) chemical. How many times have you seen a bunt properly laid down in recent years? Or a hit-and-run smoothly executed? How often have you watched a multi-million-dollar-per-year player forget how many outs there were in the inning? Or fail to run out a ground ball? Money — lots of it, showered on people too young to know how to handle it — has something to do with this. But so does a decline in respect for what Will called, aptly, the “craft of baseball.”
Cal Ripken, Jr., could be mulishly stubborn: had he listened to batting coaches, his lifetime average might have been twenty points higher. But no matter how mired in a sometimes-self-perpetuated slump he was, you always sensed his respect for the game, his determination to live the work ethic his father had taught him, and the intensity of his competitive spirit. A power-hitting fielder of genius, he redefined the position of shortstop; but he was essentially a throwback who exemplified the cardinal virtue of fortitude.
In other words — a good man, in moral as well as sporting terms.